Two things happened last week that at first didn’t seem in any way connected – but then I realised there was a connection and it was so strong it was almost tangible.
Firstly, Alan Parker, one of the great film directors of modern times died. He was just 76 and according to the newspapers had been battling an illness for some time. I have always been fascinated by his eclectic body of work. This wasn’t a director who stuck to one genre, there was nothing he wouldn’t try. He embodied to me, what the TV and film industry should be about.
He came from a working-class background and went to a state secondary school, Dame Alice Owen’s School, one of the oldest schools in the UK and still one of the highest achieving schools. He left there at eighteen, not to go to Uni, or do a gap year, but to work in the mail room at a small ad agency. Any thoughts of being a film director just didn’t exist, and I doubt on the Islington council estate where he grew up, there was much, if any, talk of such lofty ambitions. He did what virtually everybody did in those days, he started at the bottom. He freely admitted he knew nothing about cameras, lighting or sound. He learned about them, not in a classroom, being force fed statistics and theory, but by watching, looking and learning on the job.
He worked his way up to copywriting by writing spec commercials at night and handing them in the following day to the creative department. Eventually he persuaded the execs to give him a budget to experiment making commercials in the basement of their office building using a 16mm camera. Then out of the blue he was summoned to the board room, where he was told he would be leaving, because the ad agency was going underwrite a bank loan for him to set up his own commercials production company. The Alan Parker Film Company was created and partly thanks to the ad agency who were underwriting the venture, a lot of great commercials came his way, but they were only great because he made them great. And this was the golden era of commercials. Alan Parker was responsible for so many classic ads like the advert for Cockburns Port set on a life boat, or the various pastiche commercials, Brief Encounter for Birds Eye, Ben Hur for Heineken, Zulu for Silk Cut, or the still famous Cinzano set of commercials featuring Joan Collins and Leonard Rossiter, plus many more.
This was the first half of the 70s and although I had been in various commercials, my golden era of commercials really started when Alan Parker was making his transition into making movies. However our paths did cross once and very nearly twice. The ‘very nearly time’ was when I was doing a film called That’ll Be The Day, the first film I was in, and I found out, much later, that the director Claude Whatham became ill and it was Parker who stood in for a few days – but not the few days I was on the movie. I’m not a starfucker, but I would have loved to see his method of working. Directing is all about creating your own method, one that works for you, for the cast and for the crew. What you realise very quickly is that everyone is an individual and needs handling differently, it’s your job as a director to work out how that process works – and it’s different every time. And as I’ve often said the best way to learn is to watch people at work, good or bad – learning what not to do is as important as learning what to do.
Our paths crossed for real on the day my daughter was born, (I’m of the age that think it’s bad form to reveal a lady’s age, unless they say you can, so although I definitely know the date, I’m just going to say it was 16th August … some year.) How times have changed. My wife was due to be induced on that date, so we knew when the baby was due. Because we had a new child on route, we were staying in Bradford, so we had the family support network waiting in the wings. I then received a call from my relatively new agent Richard Stone, notifying me they had arranged four interviews in two days on the 16th and 17th August. There was no hesitation on my wife’s part, and I have to say, nor mine either – I should go and do the interviews. Work meant money, money meant food, clothes and a roof over our heads. Two of the interviews were for TV commercials, one was for a part in a BBC sitcom and a third was for a corporate film about health and safety in the workplace, or as it became known, ‘Always wear your hard hat.’ So, borrowing my mum’s car, I set off to London with our three-year-old son, Mat, strapped into the front seat of the car. The first interview was for Alan Parker. I met up with a close friend, Terry Wood, who I know I’ve mentioned before in my blogs, and he sat in the car with Mat, while I went in for the interview. I remember very little about that interview, I can’t remember what it was for or what was said, I just remember it was Alan Parker and I didn’t get the job. I did however get the other three – a Worthington E (a popular beer at the time), the hard hat corporate and the Liver Birds for the BBC.
Late on the afternoon of the 16th, I discovered we’d had a baby girl and all was well. In those days there was no knowing the sex of a child at 20 weeks, so like our first child, we had no idea what sex the baby was going to be. As much as you try to be cool, there’s always a fear that something might go wrong, so that evening the relief was palpable, so much so, that Mat, despite his young age, definitely felt it. We were meant to be staying in a flat in Tooting, which had been very kindly passed onto us by some friends from college, David and Janie Smith. They’d persuaded the landlord that we were a reputable family and good for the rent, which I’ll always be grateful for. The problem was there was no electricity in the flat, because it was waiting to be switched over to the new tenants – us. Mat was excited … I was excited, so off went to spend the night in Portsmouth with my sister. We returned to London early the following morning, the 17th, to complete the other interviews. We arrived back in Bradford that evening, having done the interviews, been to Portsmouth and back, got three jobs, met Alan Parker and had a new addition to the family. So in one way or another it was a colossal day in the McHales’ life, and there’s no doubt the meeting with Alan Parker was totally eclipsed by Sally.
I suppose the next time I became aware of him was through Bugsy Malone, the musical gangster film where the roles of adults are played by kids. My kids loved it and when it came out on video it was one the films we watched endlessly. This was Alan parker’s first feature film and he’d both written and directed it. I marvel to this day how he persuaded the money men to back it. Apparently it wasn’t deemed a success in the USA, but it was well received in the UK. The fact that he got it on at all, for me, was a major success. And now I feel it’s one of those pieces of work that although it didn’t get universally brilliant reviews, it has gone on to be a classic. One of those rare movies that both adults and kids get.
After Bugsy Malone his next feature was Midnight Express. Another must see film, especially if you’ve got kids going on a gap year or thinking of enjoying the drug cultures in other lands. A really brilliant film. This was followed by another innovatory movie – Fame (the original). We’d never seen dance routines performed in this way, enmeshed in quite dark stories not exactly giving the normal ‘let’s do the show right here’ impression of show business. Before fame came along I’d never wanted to write a musical, but it certainly inspired me to write a kid’s play with music and then a rock musical for the local secondary school – Skool’s Kool.
Parker carried on creating films, each totally different to the others. They ranged from Shoot The Moon to Pink Floyd’s – The Wall, from Angel Heart to Angela’s Ashes, from Mississippi Burning to Evita. And of course, I have to mention The Commitments – another film that if you haven’t seen, then you should. Quite a straightforward story, but it’s told in such away that you are constantly fascinated by the characters, wanting them to succeed, while at the same time, being blown away by the music. Parker was a film maker that was a master of storytelling and, as I said earlier, he wasn’t restricted to one genre, he could tackle any.
Which brings me to last week’s other happening.
I noticed one of the Alexa options was to listen to a 500-word story. I had no idea whether there were other parameters to this 500-word story concept, other than it had to be 500 words, but always up for a story, I listened whilst I made coffee. I was mesmerised. The coffee was completed forgotten. The story was brilliant. In 500 words it created the world, the characters and a story that I will never forget. This of course has happened to me before, but very rarely. One of the first times was when I watched a French short movie, called An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. I know I keep saying this – but if you haven’t seen it, you have to. Like you have to listen to the 500-word story that blew me away – Kristofer Was Quiet In School Today. The fact I knew nothing of why these 500-word stories existed, I had no idea it was a competition on a particular topic, was great, because I had no expectations. All I knew was that after listening to this story, which was so powerful and so emotional, I knew it was truly magnificent. I’m not going to tell you anything else about this story, I’m not going to tell you anything else about the writer, go listen to it, be moved, be angered, be motivated, then find out about the writer and how and why this story was created.
Of all the Alan Parker quotes I could refer to, the one I think is most appropriate to this blog is:
“After the inhibiting 30 second straitjacket of TV commercials, it was quite liberating to have 50 minutes to tell your story.”
I just love the idea that Alan Parker looked on himself as a storyteller. From commercials to feature films, he knew the most important element was the story. As I’ve always said … “Story is God!” And here we have two totally, different people who are both consummate storytellers. One that has sadly had his career and his life terminated and the other who is literally just starting their life. Forget about nuclear explosions, forget about Covid-19, forget about rogue asteroids, the day the world will end is the day there are no more storytellers.